Friday, July 3, 2015

The World Parliment of Religion 2015

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"What the audience saw when a dancer looked through the eyes of the mask was the Goddess Herself, an ancient and yet utterly contemporary presence, looking across time, across the miles."

Diane Darling,  Playwright

In Salt Lake City in  October  at the Parliament of World Religions a group of women and men will be  will be literally  “bringing the Goddess to life”.  “Goddess Alive!” is produced and written by M. Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien), with Mary Kay Landon.  Participants will use my “Masks of the Goddess” Collection to create a ritual theatre event honoring the many faces of the Divine Feminine throughout the world.   

The Masks of the Goddess Project began in 1998, and since then the ever-evolving, multi-cultural collection of masks have travelled around the U.S. to different communities for dance, storytelling, exhibit, and personal invocation, always collaborative.

"The work of our group was not to re-enact the ancient goddess myths, but to take those myths to their next level of evolutionary unfolding. We are the mythmakers.”   

Katherine Josten, The Global Art Project


In 1999 I was invited to create masks for the Invocation of the Goddess at the 20th Annual Spiral Dance in San Francisco.   I wanted to offer the collection as contemporary "Temple Masks" devoted to the Goddess.    It’s been my great privilege to see the masks used in numerous communities, as well as to produce several events myself, and over the years an archive of performances, stories, and interviews has accrued as the Collection travelled, gathering story.  
 
What does the story of Sedna, ocean mother of the Inuit, have to teach us about reciprocity with  nature?   What happens when an audience member stands before the Gnostic "Mirror of Sophia"?   How is the "Descent of Inanna" about a woman’s journey toward wholeness?  What might Spider Woman, the native American creatrix/weaver, communicate to us as she weaves a Web with the audience?

As the Goddess is invoked through the masked dancer’s performance, these stories come alive as a visible Presence.   Through the medium of masks, we have sought to re-claim and re-invent for today the universal, ancient, important stories of the Goddess, as well as empowering women to explore each archetypal presence within herself.   Masks are potent bridges for transformation, and by working with the mask as both performance and invocation the process serves as a blessing for both the audience and the dancer. 

Macha Nightmare and colleagues such as Ann Waters, Mana Youngbear, Diane Darling and others have evolved some simple, and yet very effective ways to work with the masks and community ritual theatre – one such is the use of the “Greek Chorus” to tell each story as the dancers emerge.  They have also included in their performances original music by collaborating musicians, and a ritual component that allows for interaction with the audience/celebrants.
In 2013 I produced a new series I called "Numina - Masks for the Elemental Powers",  for a new play by Ann Waters - "The Awakening - Our Changing Earth".   The Romans believed that places were inhabited by  intelligences they called Numina, and many gardens or springs had little shrines dedicated to them, the "genius loci", of a particular place. I have often asked myself how we can regain this sense of  communion with the elemental powers of place that are the true wellsprings of myth. 

In the past, "Nature" was not  a "backdrop", or a "resource" – it was a  conversation with many voices and many faces.  The "Numina Masks" arise from worldwide Goddesses associated with place, such as fiery Pele of Kilaua in Hawaii, or The Lady of Avalon, felt so strongly at the sacred wells of Glastonbury….. or the deep mystery of the desert, the realm of the ancient “Bone Goddess”.  My masks arise from my imagination, but invite others to  collaboratively "join the conversation".  This year (2015) I continue to create new masks for the Masks of the Goddess Collection, and the collection continues to be available to groups and individuals.  For information:   www.masksofthegoddess.com 


References:

Darling
, D. (2000)    Interview excerpt,  “Masque of the Goddess”,  Sebastopol, Ca (2000)
Josten, K. (2004).   Unpublished journal of “Restoring the Balance” cast, Tucson, Az (2004).

Photographs illustrating this article are with permission of  Thomas Lux, Ann Beam, and Jerri Jo Idarius.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Requiem for the Red Apple Rest

 
I’ve been a rolling stone all my life, so I’m understandably haunted sometimes by the different lives I've had, their flavors and fragrances found lingering in familiar places encountered up and down the "road" (Ha! Jack Kerouac had nothing on me). It's sad when “touchstones” from another era are gone, because they are touchstones from my story as well.

I’m sorry to say that this time around the bend on NY 17, I found the Red Apple Rest lying desolate by the side of the road, a hulking ruin.

I can't help but feel the Rest deserves a little requiem, because she represents to me the loss of a landscape I've seen all over the country, as the unique identities of American towns are continually replaced by Walmarts and Home Depots and Starbucks.  I would go so far as to say that most American towns look much the same - a decrepit downtown, with empty store fronts and thrift shops, and then, at the edges of town, the exact same Walmarts, Home Depots, and Burger Kings.  

It's ironic that popular American culture is so preoccupied with "rebel chic", and "no boundaries" individualism. "No boundaries" or "no limits" seem to be buzzwords that can sell anything almost as well as a blonde woman with a low neckline. Yet a good look around shows a remarkably conformist culture, whose tastes and goods seem to be  determined by the interests of global corporate entities instead of the local "spirit of place".  Gone is that unique individualism that only local small businesses can offer to their communities, along with, frankly, the prosperity that once circulated from business to business within those communities.  The money does not circulate when Walmart replaces the many jobs that once made those goods, nor does MacDonalds replace the flavor and love of small town cafes and diners.
I've seen the same thing everywhere I go - from Bythe, California to Beatrice, Nebraska to Herkimer, New York - the old downtown sucked dry,   and  the same megastores on the peripheries of town, sucking up the local economy and character.  Anyway, my story...........
In 1980 I rolled onto the old NY Route 17 just before the town of Tuxedo (that’s where “tuxedo” comes from), and discovered the Red Apple Rest Diner. Before the interstate was built, Route 17 was the highway everyone took out of New York City ("the Borscht Belt") as they headed for the cool summer resorts of the Catskills and beyond. In the 40's and 50’s, station wagons filled with restless kids stopped at the Rest for hamburgers, and teenagers in fast cars had cokes on their way to dance halls up the road.

The Red Apple Rest was a unique building in it’s time – a diner that could accommodate busloads of people bound to and from the city, with lots of room outside for souvenirs, hot dog stands, and an ice cream stand as well. It was pleasantly decrepit by the time I discovered it, much of its business having disappeared, but the Greek couple who owned it still served eggs and toast and rice pudding.

 It was full of stories and friendly ghosts, and a potted vine that grew for at least a mile across the ceiling, perhaps reminding the owners of their Mediterranean homeland.  I was there every summer to live and work at the New York Renaissance Festival as a craftswoman and a tarot reader.   Peter named me "Sophia" and for all my appearances of 15 years he always greeted me with “hey, Sophia”. The Rest was staffed with his children (who kept growing up) and any number of odd relations he seemed to import from Greece.

In other words, the Rest was full of human eccentricity and the passage of generations, including, of course, those before Peter and his family bought it.   It was a unique, warm, welcoming place you became a part of by walking in the door. There was no “take-out” - disposable was long before its time, and both Peter and the spirit of the Rest wouldn’t permit that wasteful (or perhaps just plain unsociable) sensibility.

me at the NY Renfair, ca 1989
Dishes were ceramic and bussed by the dishwasher. You sat down for a while at a wooden table, and watched the world go by. The Rest didn’t accrue piles of disposable waste - but it did accumulate characters from the road, as well as locals who were always there to hang out, along with beribboned Rennies like myself, the exotic summer guests, fluttering about with our own costumes and dramas.  In fact, I had my first date with my (now ex) husband there, talking for hours over coffee while the rain fell outside.  I also aquired a beloved cat, Shiloh, from the Red Apple Rest  (the kind hearted cook fed the strays out back scraps, and every year had kittens to find homes for.)

Farewell to the Red Apple Rest, and perhaps, to an era I can't help but feel was slower, but more gracious, much more welcoming.

Red Apple, R.I.P.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Angels in Nebraska revisited..............

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I called my previous post "Angels in Indiana", and felt like posting again a previous story I called "Angels in Nebraska"......... it just seemed to want to be told again.  I seem to become so "mundane" when I land anywhere, that perhaps Spirit waits until I'm in my car and on the move to contact me.  Or perhaps it's just that that liminal zone of travel takes us outside of the preoccupations of our daily lives and brings us full tilt into the here and now, that place where the imaginal can happen, friends in spirit can speak, and angels can give us nudge when we need it. 
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My paternal grandmother, who I loved very much as a child, was named Glen. Glen was from Nebraska, and she married my grandfather, who died long before I was born, when she was in her 20's.

He was considerably older than her, and died early in their marriage,  leaving a young widow in a small farming town with a small boy to raise in the midst of the Great Depression. Perhaps, with no money, she had no other choice but to leave her homeland, or perhaps she wanted to make a new start; but whatever her reasons may have been, like many during this time, my grandmother took my father and went west to California. In Los Angeles she worked as a seamstress.

Right or wrong, when Glen developed dementia in old age, my father would not put her into a nursing home, but confined her to a room in our house. When we went overseas  in 1963 (he worked for U.S.A.I.D.) she went with us, and lived her last years in our house there, no longer the grandmother I knew. When she died  in 1966 my father took her body back to the States, to the little town of Dewitt where her husband was buried. It was never discussed again, and  I was never allowed to grieve for her. 

In 2005, I was driving cross country to a residency in Connecticut. One day out from Tucson, I stopped at a rest stop in New Mexico for lunch. Sitting at a picnic table, I noticed something shiny under the table, and looking down saw a pair of pliers by my feet. Expensive looking pliers........so, since no one was around to claim them, I threw them on the floor of the car when I got ready to leave, and didn't think about it again.

Somewhere around Missouri, I had the idea of taking a little detour, and seeing if I could visit my Grandmother's grave. No one had been there since my father took her body there all those years ago, and if I didn't go, no one ever would again. I wondered if the little town of Dewitt even existed still? But there it was on the map, not far from Beatrice. So I headed north, visited the Prairie museum, found Dewitt, and found at last the little graveyard.

I remembered visiting that site when I was a child with my family, and I remembered the Black Eyed Susans that were ubiquitous - so that's what I planted at her grave.

Then I explored Dewitt, a town of about 1000 people. Dewitt, surprisingly for such a small town in the Prairie Lands, seemed to be prospering, due to the Tool and Die company there, which was founded by a Danish immigrant named William Petersen in the 1920's. There was even a little Dewitt museum with historical information, and a bronze statue of Mr. Petersen was proudly displayed on the green lawn at its entrance.**
It should be obvious where this is leading, but not to me at the time............I went on down the road, happy about my detour to my Grandmother's grave, and ended up in Connecticut eventually. Where, when cleaning out my car, I found that pair of pliers on the floor. On each side, they were stamped: "Vise-Grip: The Original".So now I never go anywhere without my "magical pliers", which I like to think my Angel in Nebraska provided for me.
Nebraska Sunflowers


**I am very sad to learn, from Wikipedia, that "On October 31, 2008 the plant was closed and 330 jobs were lost when manufacturing of Vise-Grips and other tools moved to China."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Angels in Indiana - Sacred Mounds and Camp Chesterfield


 I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, 
a roebuck on the mountain,
 A stock, a spade, an axe in the hand,
 A stallion, a bull, a buck,
 I was reaped and placed in an oven;
 I fell to the ground when I was being roasted
 And a hen swallowed me.
 For nine nights was I in her crop.
 I have been dead,
 I have been alive.

....from "The Song of Taliesin", an ancient Celtic Bard


Well..........synchronicities and grace abounds on this journey!  

Camp Chesterfield



Camp Chesterfield
Enroute to a brief visit to Lilydale and Brushwood, with an exhausting drive ahead, I thought to stop at Camp Chesterfield, just above Indianapolis.  I vaguely was heading to Lilydale to get a reading, and longed to just walk in the old growth woods of a highly energized place.                                                                                                                               I had heard of Camp Chesterfield, another Spiritualist center established about 130 years ago, not long after Lilydale was formed.  I managed to find it, and the little town of Chesterfield, just about dusk, and realized I would barely have time to find a motel somewhere, as the old hotel was not open.
  Three friendly people I asked directions of invited me to walk with them, I parked the car, and ended up spending the week at the home of Normandi Ellis, who, it turned out, desperately needed someone (like me) to photoshop a group of photos she had to send to her publisher right away.  Her publisher is Inner Traditions, and the book is about Isis and  Egyptian spirituality.  
Normandi Ellis has led many trips to Egypt, and is a Priestess of Isis, as well as a medium and clairvoyant, poet, teacher and author.  She knew many people I know, from the Fellowship of Isis, including my good friend Mana, and had just attended an event my ex husband was at!  And she is putting togeather a Goddess Conference at Camp Chesterfield next year, and wants me to give a proposal.  The coincidences don't end there either...........turns out the woman from South Africa who is housesitting for me travelled with her colleague to Egypt in the past.  

Mediums homes
I guess I was where I was meant to be, and still am, as I will remain until Monday in order to attend the opening of their season and to celebrate the Summer Solstice.    Camp Chesterfield must have had a huge following in its heyday - there are two hotels (one is not used), meeting halls,  temples, and beautiful grounds with old growth trees.  It's population has decreased, and it is not as prosperous or populous as Lilydale in New York - sadly, a number of the old summer houses are empty.  Perhaps new blood will come to revive and fill some of those old houses, because it is full of light, and the mediums I met here are impressive.  
I had a reading with Patricia Kennedy, who is apparently very well known in the psychic world.  She's a lovely, funny, energetic woman, with an almost visible aura.   She was amazingly right on - without knowing anything about me, she told me she saw Florence (my mother's name) with Glenn (my brother), both deceased this year, and that they were happy.  She saw my mother with flowers, which was so true of her, she was always a prize gardener.  Patricia cleared up some important questions for me, emphasizing that this year was about the end of my old life, and beginning a new life - which is so true, because I am no longer a caretaker, everything has kind of ended the way it was.  Patricia said that I had been "paying off Karmic debts", and now that was over.  She brought up my focus on the Earth, elementals, herbs, and my need to find balance and new committment - which was true also.  As I drove a few days ago, I thought about my long fascination with earth mysteries, my disappointment that I will not be visiting Avebury this year, and my desire to do a series of "Earth Shrines and Reliquaries".   


Something surprising she said was that in a past life I had been a Rabbi.  I thought immediately of how, when my daughter was born (I was 18, and gave her up for adoption) I requested that she be adopted by a Jewish family, even though I am not Jewish.  And she was.  Strange, now that I think of it, that I would make that request..............
Camp Chesterfield

She also mentioned, in her trance state, my need for Balance, and just the word "balance".  I get it personally, but also think of my long dedication to the arising of the Divine Feminine - the work I've done for "restoring the Balance" to the sanctity of the Earth and the human imagination.  
So, I got what I came for..........a reading for my mother and brother, and new direction in my life!  And I still havent even made it to Lilydale!  Ask and ye shall receive.............



Chesterfield is also not far from Mounds State Park, a very lovely Native American sacred site.  Speaking of Avebury, the Great Mound here in Indiana at Mounds Park is a Henge.  It's not on the scale of Avebury, of course, but a Henge it is, with alignments apparently to the Solstices and other celestial phenomena.  The land is indeed highly energized, with some areas as I walked through the park taking my breath away.  It's not easy to see the shapes of the Mounds as the area is fenced and also has many ancient trees growing in the site, but circling it it becomes visible. 

Old growth trees, Mound

 The site is about 2,000 years old, created by the pre-historic Hopewell peoples, and was apparently not a site they lived at, but rather a place they visited probably, as in many other sacred sites (including Stone Henge and Avebury) for ceremony and gatherings.   Like the many European and United Kingdom sites, there is no evidence that the Mounds were used as burial sites either, at least, not until over 1,000 years later in their history.  A sacred place, employing geomantic potency, revered by the unknown Native American peoples who built it so long ago.  

view of henge

And it makes sense that Camp Chesterfield was built nearby.  In fact, synchronistically, I received an email from Geomancer Sig Lonegren a day ago, and reading, thought of an article he wrote several years ago in which he brought forth the idea that the original function of the sacred sites was to amplify the effect of geomantic potency so that, in essence, the ancients could "speak with the earth and the spirit world".  
view of Henge (note snakelike form in photo - ?)

Perhaps the builders of the Great Mound were pleased to see Camp Chesterfield arise.
And I feel blessed by all of this.


ancient heiroglyphs





Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Fairy Faith.........fascinating article on Origins

“Dance of the Nature Spirits” by K.B. Williams, from Angels Light Worldwide, http://angelslightworldwide.com/category/magical-tree/

I've always been fascinated with fairy lore, ever since early childhood, and to this day.  Here's an article I take the liberty of sharing that beautifully explores some of the origins of the Fey.  All I might add is that I also believe the Fairies, like the Katchinas, or the Numina, are also ancient personifications in myth of  the nature spirits, the spirits of place, the Devas or elemental creators.  


The Fairy Faith: An ancient indigenous European Religion


Original article is from   Medievalists Magazine

Fairies Looking Through A Gothic Arch by John Anster Fitzgerald 19th century

There are two different meanings to the term “Fairy Faith.” On one hand, it simply refers to the old folkloric belief in fairies, and the practices found therein.  This meaning is usually ascribed to the modern Celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland, where belief in fairies lingered long into the modern era. In this sense, it is analogous to other places where belief in fairy-like creatures continued even into the present day, such as in Iceland and even in some Native American or Canadian First Nations traditions.

The second meaning is found in the modern neo-pagan community. It seems that the neo-pagan Fairy Faith sprung from the Wiccan community somewhere around the 1970s in California. As the modern pagan movement proliferated, many different paths developed. Some were divergent variants branching off of Wicca, while others were born in the reconstructionist movement (reconstructionist meaning attempts to reconstruct the ancient indigenous religions of Europe, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere, with historical accuracy). Yet more versions of neo-pagan paths emerged that were influenced by these, but took their own shape and form. So in the modern pagan community, the Fairy Faith has various incarnations and meanings. This article will focus mainly on the first definition, but will touch lightly on the second.

Origins of Fairy Belief

The modern notion of fairy vastly different from that which our ancestors knew, and even antiquated descriptions vary widely. While it’s fair to say that the image of the fairy has changed a number of times, it’s origins sprang from the murky haze of the Neolithic period.

In those times, ancestor worship was a common feature among Indo-European groups. Both the Celtic Sidhe as well as the Germanic Alfar were originally both associated with burial mounds, and therefore appear to have derived from ancestor worship. Human remains, and especially highly revered ancestors such as tribal leaders, chieftains, and great warriors were interred in mounds.  A chieftain or hero of the tribe would have been considered a tribal ancestor to everyone within the tribe, especially as tribes were built around the structure of kinship. Some scholars speculate that one possible origin of indigenous European deities are persons of renown whose legends grew as they continued to be remembered and honored by subsequent generations. The word sidhe originally meant the mound itself, but eventually came to mean the spirits who dwelt therein. And, alfar is the Norse word from which the modern English word “elf” derives.

Spirits of the mound are one direct foundation of elf and fairy belief. But, the connection may have also come about indirectly by the demotion of pagan gods during the conversion to Christianity. It has been noted that belief in “small spirits” continued on in folk belief for hundreds, and in some cases even a millennia, after conversion. The epic gods may have been diminished into smaller spirits of the land. By small, I don’t necessarily mean stature. But their power and roles were lesser than the mighty and central role that the great gods once played. For example, the Irish gods of the Tuatha De Danann were later associated with fairy lore.

Even into the modern era, fairies continued to be associated with the dead. In fact, some folklorists have noted that in folk accounts, there isn’t a clear differentiation between ghosts and fairies (Spence, 87).  The Otherworld inhabited by fairies was often associated with the land of the dead, and spirits of dead relatives and ancestors were often said to be existing in the land of the fairies.
Some folklorists speculate that the notion of fairies could be a cultural memory of the original inhabitants of Britain before they were pushed aside by the incoming Celts. These people may have been smaller in stature, and took to hiding in the forests and mounds as their numbers because increasingly less. They may have engaged in guerrilla war-like tactics as they became ever more adept at disappearing into their wooded environment. Because they had less resources than the Celts, the idea of the indigenous people swapping their sickly infant and stealing a healthy one from his cradle is one hypothesis for changeling tales.

So we can see that there are numerous influences and hypotheses for the origins of fairy lore. To complicate things, the term fairy would later be used to describe all manner of otherworldly spirit. There are tales of demon or ghost dogs, for example, that are described as fairy. The word “fairy” itself is a departure from the early notions of sidhe and alfar ancestor spirits. It comes from fatae, meaning the Fates from classical mythology. Fatae evolved into the noun fay. Those who wielded the power of the fay could bring about a state of enchantment called fay-erie, which developed into the modern fairy (Briggs, 131). So, we can see that in the modern English speaking world, the concept of fairy has numerous foundations, notwithstanding the fact that most cultures worldwide contain their own unique beliefs about fairy-like beings.

As Christianity arose in Celtic and Anglo Britain, the indigenous fairy beliefs were grafted into the Christian lexicon, altering beliefs further. Not only did powerful deities of mythology become shrunken into fairy lore, but ideas about fairies changed to fit the Christian paradigm.  Instead of being spirits connected to Earth-centered spirituality, it began to be said that fairies were the fallen angels. Another story is that they were angels who had refused to take a side during Lucifer’s revolt, so they were damned to exist between heaven and hell for eternity.

Elemental spirits illustration by Alfred Fredricks, 1873Because the Judeo-Christian pantheon has only God (as trinity), Satan, angels, demons, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, these extra-biblical indigenous spirits had to be made to fit a biblical context. Thus, they were relegated as demons by Church leaders. And while this may sound very medieval, later Protestant Reformation writers were especially forceful in their condemnation of fairies as demons.  People found to be interacting with fairies could be charged with witchcraft.

 In fact, fairies feature prominently in Scottish witch trial records and were discussed in detail in leading demonology texts written during the witch hunt era (for more on this, see “When Witches Communed with Fairies” in Celtic Guide, Volume 2, Issue 10, October 2013).


Fairies and Faith

The image of the sweet little pixie with butterfly wings comes strictly from the Victorian Era.  In folklore, fairies have many different descriptions. Spirits who live closely with humans, such as domestic elves, tend to look like little old men dressed in antiquated clothing. This likely connects to the alfar’s evolution from an ancestor spirit as described above. In an age when property was handed down through the generation, it was believed that the original owner of the homestead lingered on as guardian. The propitiation of domestic spirits was common all across Europe, as well as elsewhere in the world. Due to early Christianization of Celtic lands, domestic spirits are not as common in Celtic folklore as elsewhere – except for in Scotland.  This is due to the heavy (but sadly overlooked) Germanic heritage in Scotland. The brownies of Scotland fit snugly into the house-elf tradition seen elsewhere in Germanic culture.

Another change in the modern view of fairies is their role as benevolent and spritely elemental spirits. While these supernatural beings were long associated with nature, it was often in a frightful way. Far from the gentle winged fairy, we might have the gargantuan leshy, guardian of the forests in Russian folklore. Leshy is thought to be a cousin of the Celtic green man, another ancient guardian of the forest. Forest spirits were known to be wily. They might lead the careless wanderer off their path and then disappear leaving only their echoing laughter as the traveler finds himself lost in the wilderness.  Likewise, water spirits might seduce a young fisherman only to pull him to his death beneath the waves.

Just as fairies evolved into innocuous, playful sprites in modern times, they also went through transformations in the past. It seems that every major age in civilization brings with it a change in fairy belief. From ancestor mound spirits in the Neolithic, to more advanced and god-like notions in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and then another change when Christianity swept through Europe. Great and powerful spirits were relegated to smaller realms. And, good or neutral spirits became seen as strictly demonic.

We tend to view fairies, and the like, as not only innocuous, but fairly silly. Those who profess to believe in them today are laughed at by mainstream culture; derided as not only misguided, but even dim-witted. Yet, from the beginning of Europe’s conversion to Christianity, which began in the 7th century in England (13th century in the Baltic, elsewhere in between) up through the Early Modern Era (circa the 16th and 17th centuries), belief in fairies was quite dangerous. The Church (both Catholic and Protestant) recognized fairy belief as a vestige of pagan religion, which therefore made it a threat to Christianity’s control over the peasantry. And, during the turbulent years of The Reformation, fairy belief could get an individual accused of witchcraft.

An excellent book on this is European Mythology by Jacqueline Simpson. Rather than focusing on the great gods of classic mythology, this book focuses on fairies and folk tradition. She explains that there is a huge difference between fairy belief found in folklore and the other genre that often gets lumped together with it; fairytales. Simpson says that fairytales are told mainly for entertainment, while folklore “is concerned with supernatural forces as real entities, to be reckoned with in the everyday world, and not just as material for entertaining…” (Simpson, p8). These supernatural beliefs were part of the “folk religion” of the common people. Folk religion is the corpus of beliefs held by masses, which usually combines the formalized religion of the elite (typically Christianity in the West and lands colonized by the West, but also seen with other major world religions in other parts of the world) with the indigenous beliefs of the people. This phenomenon is also called “popular religion.” Another scholar who has studied the merging of pagan and Christian beliefs in Britain is Karen Louise Jolly. She explains:

Popular religion, as one facet of a larger, complex culture, consists of those beliefs and practices common to the majority of believers. This popular religion encompasses the whole of Christianity, including the formal aspects of religion as well as the general religious experience of daily life. These popular practices include rituals marking the cycles of life (birth, marriage, death) or combatting the mysterious (illness and danger) or asserting spiritual security (the afterlife). Popular belief was reflected in those rituals and in other symbols exhibited in society, such as paintings, shrines, and relics” (Jolly, 9).

So, popular religion did not imply that the people held a notion of self-identity as being pagan. They considered themselves strictly Christian. But, many of their beliefs, traditions, and practices retained elements of ancient pagan spirituality mixed with Christianity. And, a large part of that in Britain, and elsewhere, hinged on the belief in fairy spirits.

Spiritual Practices

As noted in the above quote, popular religion was expressed in the folk practices of the people. One practice found all over Europe that demonstrates the religious nature of fairy belief is the act of making offerings.  Offerings are made to deities in many world religions through the ages to today. Even in Christianity, Jesus is called “the sacrificial lamb” and his act of dying on the cross is supposed to replace the Jewish practice of animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice also occurs today in Islam, as well as other religions.

The kinds of sacrifices traditionally given to propitiate fairy spirits are more akin to offerings found in some Eastern faiths, such as Hinduism or Buddhism today. Rather than slaughtering an animal for blood sacrifice, offerings given to the fae are typically in the form of food and drink, with grains and dairy featuring prominantly. This is true for both domestic and certain types of nature spirits.
French scholar Claude Lecouteux studied folk practices related to domestic spirits (such as brownies and other house elves) from all around Europe for his book The Tradition of Household Spirits. He states:

In all these rites, what stands out is that the domestic spirit receives a portion of the household’s food as an offering. It is regarded as a family member and treated as such. It has a marked preference for dairy products, a feature it shares with fairies who often perform the same duties as it does, even if they do not remain in the house and only stop there during Twelve Days or other dates (Ember Days, All Saints’ Day, and so on). (Lecouteux, p146).

(As an aside, note the similarity between what is described by Lecouteux and our modern day custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa Claus, that “jolly old elf.” We are not as separated from our ancient customs as we might think!)

Offerings were not restricted only to domestic spirits, but also given to fairies residing in nature as well. In her book, Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, scholar Carol Rose mentions that salt and bread are traditional offerings given to the Russian forest guardian, the Leshy (Rose, p197). And, lest we assume that a Slavic custom has no bearing on beliefs and practices of the Celtic and Germanic people, Jacqueline Simpson reminds us that:

[Folk tradition]is ‘European’ because its main features are pretty consistent throughout Europe, despite political and linguistic barriers; the range of activities ascribed to fairies, for instance, remains much the same everywhere, whatever names they are known by (Simpson, p8).

This is not to say that all European cultures are identical. But, simply that they are related and share many characteristics, especially as it pertains to folk tradition.

Offerings could take form other than food, especially when given to nature spirits. Coins are a common offering to water deities and fairies. You have probably given this offering yourself, throwing a coin into a wishing well.  Pagan belief carried a heavy dose of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” If you desire to receive something from a spirit, i.e. make a wish, then you must give it something in return. And, so, we still toss coins into wishing wells for the water fairies in return for wishes granted today. Ribbons and pieces of cloth strewn about the branches of trees are another such custom that continues clear across Britain today.

Fairy Faith Today

The Fairy Faith lives on today, even if it is not recognized among world religions. Many of us engage in certain behaviors without even realizing we are acting out an ancient pagan fairy rite, such as leaving out a food offering for Santa or tossing coins to a water well goddess.  Folklore lives on in many remote corners of Europe, where people still insist that they have had an interaction with or siting of a fairy.

With the rise of neo-paganism in the past thirty or so years, fairy beliefs have regained a home inside the lexicon of religion. While many modern pagans assert a belief in fairies and other similar spirits as one component of their wider belief system, others make fairy spirits the central aspect of their religion.  And, while this may seem like a niche cultural subgroup, online book sellers offer numerous titles on this subject, demonstrating that this niche has an ever growing following.


Bibliography

Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies, 1976.
Gundarsson, Kvedulf. Elves, Wights, and Trolls, 2007.
Jolly, Karen Louise. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England, 1996.
Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits, 2000.
Lindahl, Carl, et. all. Medieval Folklore, 2000.
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins, 1996.
Simpson, Jacqueline. European Mythology, 1987.
Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, 1999.

Carolyn Emerick writes about history, myth and folklore in the Middle Ages. You can read  about her work at her website  www.carolynemerick.com

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Visiting New Mexico - White Sands National Monument

Truly one of the most fey, elemental, beautiful places on Earth.  In truth, it's very much like being on a different planet.  And no, those vast fields are not snow.





Photo by Georgia Stacy



Saturday, June 6, 2015

"The Treason of the Artist" - Reflections on Beauty in Art


“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual,  only evil interesting.  This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”  
Ursula Le Guin  “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

One of the things I do is review  art sites for residencies, for which I apply and usually pay a hefty application fee as well.  At a prestigious art center in North Carolina I saw a listing recently.  As part of their application process they posed a  question for potential residents to answer, presumably setting the  ground for "discourse" for artists to pursue  in the course of their time there as they educate, create,  inspire and pollinate the local community (which is generally the idea of a resident artist). 

Here's the question:

 “This artist-in-residence will address whether the concept of beauty gets lost in the issues-based or medium-focused practice of contemporary art.  Does beauty still  have a place in creative expression? Is the contemporary definition of beauty different from classical beauty?
Is beauty relevant? Who cares?“

In Tom Wolfe's famous  critique of contemporary art of the 70's  The  Painted Word  he  argued that art was become literature, more a media creation of art critics than the artists themselves, who were (and still are) generally floundering about at the edges of society seeking any kind of identity, even one invented for them by critics.  (In the 80's, after graduate school, I went all over the country interviewing artists myself, trying to understand what the early  or spiritual roots of art might be.)  

In his introduction, Wolfe wrote that  he began his book by  settling into a Sunday morning with the  New York times like sinking into a familiar warm bath.  Then he encountered a paragraph in the Arts section that shocked him awake -  as he put it, a "satori flash". 

Such was my reaction to this question.  

“Does beauty still have a place in creative expression?”  

Let’s have that one again:

  “Does beauty still have a place in creative expression.”  (and by extension, since it is the opposite of "beauty",  the questioner assumes that   “ugly” evidently does have a place in creative expression.) 

And there it was again, the same reality-turned-on-its-ears aesthetic that inspired me to  run into the  woods and around the country after finishing graduate school.  The same artspeak hyper-intellectual  "what was that?" that still causes me to avoid Art In America and anything with a "Biennial" after the title as if I could catch the measles.   But this time I think I will face my fear head on.


"They argue that what audiences deserve from any sensitive visionary is an assault on the senses that will degrade,  humiliate, and finally awaken the supreme aesthetic experience offered to the Western world through art - namely guilt.  But guilt is exactly the out we must not cop to if we are to survive."

Pierre Delattre, Beauty and the Aesthetics of Survival

night blooming Cereus
What then is  Beauty?  Thomas Aquinas saw beauty as having three properties:  integrity, proportion, and last, "the clarity and radiance of being.

The clarity and radiance of the life force, of nature, and of the human spirit participating within that brilliance.  

That which inspires us to preserve, protect, those moments that we remember.  Beauty thus can be understood to mean so many experiences that arise from the "radiance of Being" - grace,  serenity,  empathy, color, symmetry, tenderness, the imaginative synapse that can occur between lines of a poem, joining the poet and reader in a dimension of the imagination.  The awe of a storm clad sky advancing across the prairie, the bell-like call of a morning lark, the profound pathos of an exhasusted mother's face at childbirth, the wonder of a night-blooming Cereus opening at dusk, the brilliant play of color captured  by a John Singer Sargeant, or the moving symbolic imagery of a Frieda Kahlo.

 John Singer Sargeant


If not beauty, what is "relevant" to "creative expression"?   If we eliminate beauty from creativity, what are we  left with that is not "beautiful" but somehow more important? 

Politics. Guilt leading to despair and being called "realism".    Art that occurs by accident, made without intention.  Expressions and cries of pain (but never ecstasy).  Art that grieves and rages and shocks. 

In fact, in a world that seems to be endlessly absorbed with a kind of adolescent rebellion complex, "shock" seems to be de rigour. 

I am not saying that these aspects of creativity are not valid or should be censored.  But I am saying that there is a prejudice to beauty in our world  that is almost an anti-aesthetic.  An aesthetic that  celebrates the qualities that are in opposition to "beauty" leaves the viewer with    violent, nihilistic,  meaningless, dark, stinking, shocking, ridiculing, inhumane,  disgusting, intentionally incomprehensible.........and so on.

In 1987, when I finished my MFA, the word "beautiful"   was a embarrassing  concept in the art world, a word that those in the fine arts world of academia avoided as  cliched, reactionary, irrelevant. Apparently it still is.    Students were taught to emulate their teachers in achieving artistic statements and bodies of work  that held  "depth".

In graduate school I remember one student who entered the MFA program a talented  realist painter.  By the time she had her MFA show, her work was large white and black canvases, blank except for a few gestural marks and an occasional word, buried in the field of the canvas such that it could not actually be read, just suggested.   Certainly, I guess it could be said, her new work left a whole lot more to the imagination.  Another student spent the entire program in the morgue, drawing corpses, some in the process of dissection.  And another finished the program with huge wall pieces that were composed of the bones and dried skins of dead animals (horses in particular) that she found in the desert.

I am not saying that these works were without value, or  power,  because they were hard to look at, disturbing, or seemingly incomprehensible without their written  narratives (which also can sometimes seem incomprehensible).  But I am saying (and 30 years later I still feel politically incorrect in doing so) that these choices of works and subjects by young people beginning their careers reflects an aesthetic they were encouraged to pursue over others.  

I was busy painting Goddesses, and no one knew what to make of me.   Somehow I squeaked through the program, finding at least one feminist art historian who liked them.

I remember my own "ah ha" during a painting critique.  Up for discussion was the work of two students, both equally competent painters.  This was the height of New Age, and one body of work was about ecstatic visions the artist was having, visions of flying, being infused with light, and heart imagery.  The other body of work was painted in dark colors, and was full of disturbing sexual imagery -  vagina dentata, and  a tree with bloody dismembered penises.  

Virtually all the class, and particularly the teacher, found the later work "powerful".  And virtually all the class, as well as the teacher, found the former body of work "illustration" and "sci-fi".  (In the fine  art world, to call a painting  "illustration" is perhaps one of the highest insults.)  Since I loved the first artists paintings, I wanted to know why no one else seemed to think they could be taken seriously.  Was it the colors, style, technique?  No, and no.  Finally, it turned out that it was the content that could not be taken seriously.  

In other words,  we could believe in the truth of pain, and psychological and erotic dismemberment, but ecstasy belonged to fantasy.  

That set me to wondering about many things, and set me on a course to discover other, perhaps earlier, purposes of art and the creative process.  It was my privilege, in the late 1980's, to share conversations about art, spirituality, and cultural transformation with some extraordinary artists, travelling across the country to meet many of them.   I realize  now I was really trying to understand my own reasons for making art. 

But that's another story.

Below is a traditional Navajo  prayer  I sometimes read as a way of understanding how to "walk" in the world.  The Navajo celebrate, with the  turning directions, the  continual motion and transformation of life.  From the "house of Dawn" to the "house of Twilight" we can choose to realize beauty all around us, and their  understanding of "beauty" means all that is good, beneficial, worthy of gratitude.

"In the house made of dawn
in the house made of evening twilight,
in beauty may I walk
with beauty above me,
with beauty below me,
with beauty beside me 
I walk with beauty all around me
With beauty it is finished."

.......Navajo (Din`e)
Navajo Sand Painting by Lee